tv Dateline MSNBC August 1, 2020 11:00pm-12:00am PDT
no matter how many years pass by. >> that's all for this edition of "dateline". thank you for watching. it was a whirlwind love affair. >> i felt like this was the one that i'd been waiting for. maybe it was too good to be true. did he love me, or was this all a game? >> reporter: a beautiful businesswoman falls for a dashing doctor, but her daughters have doubts -- >> i had lots of suspicions. >> she thinks his fingernails are dirty. this does not look to her like the hands of an actual doctor. who was this guy? >> his nickname was "dirty john." >> this woman knew him all too well. >> i started snooping.
and i found everything. >> this reporter made some unnerving discoveries, too. >> he scared a lot of people. he swindled a lot of people. >> the story of his "dirty deeds" riveted the nation in a hit podcast. >> announcer: this is dirty john. >> but dirty was about to turn dark. >> he's got duct tape, he's got all the tools ready to kidnap her. >> would this mom and her daughters learn the truth in time? >> she was in a panic. she said, "i saw john." "outside in a car." >> a story ending in savagery that would stun even police. >> there's no way he gets away with this unless he kills her.
here's keith morrison with "the women & dirty john." ♪ >> reporter: in the beginning was desire, natural human desire for connection, for love. and so she aimed her arrow at that online ocean of intimate strangers and found -- him. >> newport beach 911. do you need police fire or paramedics? >> hi. i need an ambulance right away and the police. >> reporter: it was summertime when the awful climax came. a late afternoon, a marmalade sun beating down on the parking lot of a rental apartment complex in newport beach,
california. that's when they heard it. >> and she says this woman's just screaming. >> all right. >> whole complex must have heard it, terrified, howling, desperate. >> is she ok? >> reporter: there was a man down there, they could see him. he had a knife. he was stabbing the screaming woman and nobody was helping her. >> it's really bad -- >> all right. i understand. we have officers on the way. >> too late. too late. >> oh, the ambulance is here. they're doing cpr on somebody. >> the bloody ending. but the story, the whole terrible tale, is much deeper than that one thing, dreadful though it was. a story christopher goffard of of the "los angeles times" spent months unraveling. strand by disturbing strand. >> it's a story about trust and betrayal, and it's a story about family.
>> about a woman, two protective daughters and what those daughters did when the man came into their mother's life. before the homicide in the parking lot. >> reporter: the story became a podcast produced with the podcast network wondery. the number one podcast in the country for a time. voted by "entertainment weekly," "usa today" and "the guardian" as one of the best of 2017. downloaded by more than the story and the man at the heart of it was called, "dirty john." >> he was a very creative super manipulative, charismatic, handsome, charming. intelligent. >> he was a nightmare to everybody. >> reporter: but -- not to her. to debra newell, of orange county, california, the man who presented himself on the dating website, dr. john meehan,
anesthesiologist, looked very promising. >> he was the total package. a doctor. very intelligent. family man. loved his kids. >> reporter: not that attracting men had ever been difficult for debra, or any of the women in the family, according to her daughter terra. >> men kind of flock to them. >> really? what is it about the women of your family? >> well, they have really great hearts, and they're pretty decent looking. >> reporter: good women. happy. successful. attractive. >> i love those barstools. >> reporter: debra owned a thriving interior design firm and a moving company, and a silk flowers business. had dozens of employees. certainly no money worries. but she was in her 50s, marriages behind her and she was looking. each potential mate carefully vetted by her watchful daughters.
>> we were very judgmental of all the men that she dated. >> reporter: a little too judgmental? maybe. >> me and my sister could go over the top sometimes. just very protective over my mom. >> reporter: but now debra wanted a romance, just for her, on her terms. >> i had always done everything for my children. so i felt like it was "me" time. >> reporter: and this guy on the website was "me time" to a t. >> he's just back from a year in iraq where he's volunteered with doctors without borders. >> reporter: he was charming. kind of old-fashioned. when he asked her out, he didn't just meet her somewhere, or wait in his car. >> he insisted on coming upstairs to get me. so that's what a gentleman does. >> reporter: yes. he took her to a fancy place for dinner, and all courtly, manners, paid the not inconsiderable bill. on their second date -- he arrived in medical scrubs --
he'd come straight from an operation and he was handsome and tall and very fit. and very into her. >> he swept me off my feet, said everything right. took me everywhere that i wanted to go. >> reporter: did you have that walking on air feeling that you get when you fall in love? >> little bit. i fell in love. >> she called me one day and told me that she met someone amazing and that she really liked this guy. she wanted me to meet him. >> reporter: but true to form perhaps, debra's daughters reacted just as they often did to a new man in her life, especially terra's sister. >> she didn't like him immediately and i thought, "oh, she'll eventually like him. he's a lotta fun. he'll win her over." >> reporter: debra rented a house, part of her new start in a picturesque part of newport called balboa island. and she ran her business with a new lightness. and at night was loved by this
accomplished doctor, this sensitive man. what did he do for you? >> everything. from run errands to me to back rub every night. just would listen to my day. we would take walks every night. he held my hand. i mean, he was everything that you would want. >> pinch yourself. you've got it finally. >> yeah. >> reporter: then, just before thanksgiving, as terra helped her mother move into the balboa house -- >> he started moving his stuff in, too. >> reporter: terra didn't like it. not a bit. she confronted her mother. >> i told her it looks fishy. i don't get it. she told me i needed to mind my own business. and he came up behind her. >> reporter: what'd he say? >> he was saying that you're just trying to get your mom all to yourself. and i started screaming back at him, no, john. that's what you are trying to do." >> reporter: the next day was thanksgiving, and debra quite
fed up, told her suspicious daughters not to bother showing up for dinner. neither one of you? >> neither one of us. >> reporter: what was that like? >> really hard. >> reporter: hard for debra, too, but she needed her own life. she and john asked a counselor for advice. >> and the counselor suggested that i have rules for the girls. >> reporter: boundaries. >> the therapist said, "look, you have a right to be happy. this is your relationship. and john's position was this therapist is absolutely right. >> reporter: so debra weighed the options. listen to her family? or embrace what felt like the best thing to come along in years? she chose love, or certainly what felt like it. what's the old expression? "till death do us part"? the bond between mother and daughters already fraying might just break thanks to a startling decision by debra.
>> i knew my family would be not very happy with me. when we return, the daughters fight back by doing some digging into john. >> she bought these trackers for cars, and she put one on my mom's tesla. so she found out where john was going. ♪ ♪ protect your pet with the #1 name in flea and tick protection. frontline plus. trusted by vets for nearly 20 years. my job is to help new homeowners who have turned into their parents. i'm having a big lunch and then just a snack for dinner. so we're using a speakerphone in the store. is that a good idea?
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call your doctor if worsened breathing, chest pain, mouth or tongue swelling, problems urinating, vision changes, or eye pain occur. think your copd medicine is doing enough? maybe you should think again. ask your doctor about once-daily trelegy. we know times are hard and we're here for you. find support at trelegy.com. ♪ >> reporter: las vegas, nevada.
the great glittering temples to gambling will happily take your money, of course, and perhaps you'll leave the city a little poorer, and if you want to bet your heart in las vegas, well, you can put that on the line, too if you're in a betting mood, and debra newell was. >> i felt very adored and very loved, and i thought, "well, if he's the love of my life. i'm ready." >> reporter: they'd been dating two months when she went to vegas on business in december, 2014. john meehan went along. and -- >> we went to a courthouse, and just got married before a judge. >> reporter: like that? >> just like that. >> reporter: married. nobody there but them and their secret. they decided, said debra, they wouldn't tell anyone. >> i knew my family would be not very happy with me. >> reporter: what did it feel like? >> very mixed emotions.
a little empty, knowing that they're not onboard with this. >> reporter: but that's all on that one side. on the other side, there's this rush of happiness and good feelings, right? >> yes. >> reporter: so debra's daughters, protective as usual, had no idea that their mother was a newlywed. the therapist debra had seen recommended that she keep her relationship separate from her family, but, of course, christmas was coming, and there were very important family traditions. like the one where terra would have her own special time with the nieces and nephews of her extended family. so they made a deal. john would stay in a different room, while terra had the kids to herself. >> she was going to be able to enjoy the kids, and he had to sort of stay away. >> reporter: didn't work out so well? what actually happened? >> well, he walked in with all the presents, and, of course, the kids congregate all around him. >> he went straight up to them. he gave them gifts.
>> reporter: like, being santa claus or something. >> something like that. yeah. >> reporter: yeah. i mean, that kind of sort of role. >> yeah. >> reporter: did he do it on purpose? of course, thought terra. >> that made me so upset. >> terra was very emotional. i thought, "just suck it up. you know? it's christmas. have fun. >> reporter: instead she felt that that man had come and usurped something? >> yes. >> yes. >> reporter: he had not only stolen their christmas, thought the daughters, but both of them worried he was stealing their too trusting mother. taking advantage of her. she just let him drive her car. why would he need to? wasn't he a prosperous doctor an anesthesiologist? couldn't he afford a car? well, there was a reason, debra told them. that while john was in iraq working with doctors without borders, he was robbed. >> his house, his clothes, his cars. he was working with insurance -- an insurance company of getting the claim.
so i let him borrow my car. >> reporter: john would get all his money back soon enough, said debra. didn't wash with terra. sounded like a shaggy dog tale. >> at that time i had lots of suspicions. >> reporter: and that's when she and her sister decided to do some snooping. >> she bought these trackers for cars. and she went and put one on my mom's tesla. so she found out where john was going. >> reporter: where was he going? >> he was going to multiple doctors' offices. >> reporter: not so unusual, perhaps, for an anesthesiologist. but the sisters noticed something. >> he was there for not that long of time. >> reporter: not long enough to conduct any medical procedure so what were those quick visits all about? seemed more like a man trying to get access to something. like maybe drugs. it was just a hunch, but they went to debra with that. said, maybe he's an addict. and debra refused to entertain their wild suspicions. this was more like, "stop interfering in my life?" >> somewhat. yes.
but i'd fallen in love. >> reporter: debra's daughters were not about to be put off. >> one of her daughters is particularly suspicious. she doesn't know why he wears surgical scrubs everywhere. it seems to be a costume he's wearing. she thinks his fingernails are dirty, and this does not look to her like the hands of an actual doctor. >> reporter: and so they started digging. an investigation that would lead halfway across the country. to the depths of evil. to an appointment with death. coming up -- troubling revelations about john. >> they learned that he was not a doctor. >> discoveries that were about to go from disturbing to terrifying. >> i said, "he's very, very dangerous." >> when "dateline" continues. this isn't just a wifi upgrade.
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>> reporter: terra newell and cash, her miniature australian shepherd, were inseparable. >> he has unconditional love. and he wants to be there no matter what. >> reporter: terra went to cosmetology school, but chose to work with four legged clients instead, as a dog groomer. >> reporter: what do you like about dogs? >> i really like that they're innocent. they don't have any evil in them unless they were taught to have evil in them. >> reporter: sure.
and terra was something of a student of evil. she was a fan of the tv show "the walking dead." zombies. she had a feeling that evil was lurking in the life of john meehan. so did her sister. they knew he was hiding something, said reporter christopher goffard, and they were determined to find out what it was. >> they hired a private investigator to look into his past. >> reporter: debra, meanwhile, was in love. the newlyweds had settled into a simple life on newport's balboa island. debra, convinced she'd found the perfect man. even when, sometimes things didn't quite make sense. like the time she picked up the mail, and saw a strange return address on a letter to her husband. >> reporter: you opened a letter to him? >> yes, i did. i was so curious. and he was irate. "that's fraud. you know, i can't believe you did that. >> reporter: but what had caught
her attention was that letter was from an inmate at the orange county jail. >> did you read the letter? >> i did. >> reporter: what was in it? >> it was talking about how lucky he was that he had found love, and that his life had turned around. and i'm thinking, "life had turned around?" hmm. so i questioned him, and he said that he writes and sends care packages to people in prison. >> reporter: sounded plausible enough to debra, but not to the sisters. especially not once their private investigator began reporting his findings on john meehan. >> they learned that he was not a doctor. he was not an anesthesiologist. >> reporter: john had worked as a nurse anesthetist, but not recently. and he certainly had not been in iraq with doctors without borders. instead just before he met debra -- >> they learned that one of his
recent addresses was the orange county jail. >> reporter: john was not a sender of care packages, he had been an inmate. then in march 2015, four months after john moved in with debra the sisters snooped around the balboa house and -- jackpot. they found a stash of paperwork john had left there. legal documents, police reports. >> reports that he's stalked other women and that other women had restraining orders on him. >> reporter: john's papers outlined a long criminal history. multiple arrests and incarcerations, drug convictions. alarming stuff. >> and debra was hesitant to believe the stuff. she believed john. >> reporter: even after her daughters told her what they'd found, debra went straight to john, and he said they had the wrong guy. >> he said, "there's gonna be allegations that other john meehans did."
and i thought, "well, okay, you've got a point." >> reporter: john said he was a victim of mistaken identity in some cases, and in others, he was framed. >> and he said, "i was set up. and i said, "but you lied to me." he goes, because i knew you would never date me if you knew the truth, and i said, you're right. i wouldn't have. >> reporter: thing was, john was so sad. seemed so sincerely contrite. >> he started crying and crying and crying. and he said, "please forgive me. i love you so much. i can never live without you." >> reporter: and it was true that he made her feel like she was the only woman in the world. and when they were alone together she felt truly loved. >> and i'm thinking, "okay, 90% of me doesn't believe him, but there's that 10% that maybe he's right, and i'm going to throw away the person that i fell in love with without trying to work it through." >> reporter: and so she accepted his explanations, and she
forgave him. there was always a reason? >> yes. >> reporter: in march 2015, soon after they found that stash of papers, terra and her sister discovered their mother was married to the guy. that was it. they were fed up. refused after that to speak to her. this was a very big, bad problem in your life. >> yeah. >> reporter: just how big and how bad they didn't know yet. but buried in that stash of john's papers was the name of someone who did. a detective, way off in ohio. one of the sisters picked up the phone. called him. what did you think when you got her call? >> i said, "he's very, very dangerous. you need to talk to your mother. you need to have her call me. i will tell her everything." >> reporter: that is, the strange and disturbing tale that begins with -- her.
coming up -- thousands of miles away, this woman also had questions about john. >> i started snooping. and i found everything. >> and when she spoke up, that's when things got really scary. >> tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth. okay? because that's what it's going to come down to. >> when "dateline" continues. d s that selling cars 100% online wouldn't work. but we went to work. building an experience that lets you shop over 17,000 cars from home. creating a coast to coast network to deliver your car as soon as tomorrow. recruiting an army of customer advocates to make your experience incredible. and putting you in control of the whole thing with powerful technology. that's why we've become the nation's fastest growing retailer. because our customers love it. see for yourself, at carvana.com. it's very common to havehave sensitivity a gum health concern as well. you know, i talk to dentists every day and they're able to recommend
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>> reporter: it was the late 1980s. tonia was a young nurse anesthetist in dayton, ohio. john was in law school there. until he met her, that is, and said he had a kind of epiphany. >> he said, "you know, i'm not even sure i'll be happy being an attorney. i think i wanna be a nurse anesthetist" and i think my jaw fell to the ground, because i thought he was, you know, a second-year law student. >> reporter: in fact, he wasn't. he had been kicked out. though he didn't tell her that. >> all the days of my life. >> reporter: so, in her blissful ignorance, she married him in her family's church in 1990. >> mr. and mrs. john meehan. >> reporter: and she helped put him through nursing school. they had two daughters before things stopped adding up. >> and i found out that he was having an affair. >> reporter: tonia wondered, what else did she not know about her soon to be ex-husband. like, why did he refuse to invite his family to their wedding?
why not let her even meet them? she decided to call his mother. >> i said, "dolores, this is tonia. i'm married to your son, john." and the phone was quiet for a minute. and she said, "oh, tonia. i knew you'd call me some day." >> reporter: wow. >> and so then, of course, my heart was racing and my knees were shaking just to make the phone call. and then she just unloaded on me, you know, all the details of trouble in the past. >> reporter: according to his own mother, john had been cheating and stealing and lying for years. even lied to tonia about his age. lopped off five years. oh, and he'd been convicted of cocaine trafficking. >> she said, you know, "is he still using drugs?" and i said "what?" >> reporter: so in something like shock, tonia become a sleuth. who was this man? >> i started snooping. and i found everything. it was under my nose all the time. >> reporter: evidence of a criminal double life. and something else --
>> a cedar box full of fentanyl and versed and some other things that aren't controlled substances. >> reporter: she started watching that cedar box. >> and things did come and go. so now i thought -- >> reporter: it's a stash. >> it's a stash. yeah. >> reporter: was he using his position as a nurse to steal drugs? like getting a ticket to be in the candy store all day long. >> right. i mean, it's like putting an alcoholic as a bartender. >> reporter: she told the authorities. she had to. it was the law. >> he had to be stopped. he was going to hurt patients. >> reporter: and on a dime. >> he turned on me. he flipped like a switch. >> reporter: now the man she once thought she knew turned scary. threatening. she began recording their phone conversations. >> listen to me, tonia. >> i'm listening. >> i got a big smile on my face and you know why? because it's gonna get done. >> what's gonna get done? you're not making any sense. >> well, it don't have to. you will understand when the
time comes. >> hmm. >> and that's all i got to say. when it happens tonia and you see it in your eye you remember it was me, okay? >> remember what, john? >> keep that in mind. it was me. tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth. okay? because that's what it's gonna come down to. >> reporter: he was arrested for making threats against tonia in june 2001, was convicted of menacing and put on probation. he wasn't the man she thought he was? >> that's exactly right. there was another version of john. >> reporter: dennis luken was a police detective back then. he investigated the source of those drugs tonia found in the cedar box. he started at john's house. and found a gun. illegal, because john was on probation. so he was arrested again and sent to jail. >> when he went to montgomery county jail, i called a supervisor. i said, "you've got an individual there, john meehan, and he's gonna try to con you out of drugs." he says, "he already has.
he claimed he fell out of the top bunk and he got pain medication." >> reporter: you're dealing with an incorrigible person here. >> yes, sir. you're dealing with an addict. a very sar >> reporter: eventually, thanks to luken, john did jail time for stealing drugs in ohio and michigan. and tonia felt guilty. wondering if she'd missed warning signs. wondered what else john might have hidden from her. never thought about the clue. way back at the beginning. on her wedding video. >> and the groomsmen who'd had some drinks and have their arms around each other, and they're talking about how they met him. >> we're here to celebrate john. >> one of the groomsmen said -- >> john meehan's nickname is filthy john meehan. >> reporter: filthy john, over the years, became dirty john and the nickname stuck. >> reporter: you found out later on, there was a story to that. >> yes. he was basically conning little old women out of money for jobs that he didn't do.
and also that he had a way with the ladies. >> reporter: luken discovered darker secrets as well. john supplied the opioids that killed his own addicted brother. he was alone with his sick father when the old man died rather suddenly. john wasn't charged in those said luken, and as the years went on, he developed a certain criminal specialty. >> he would go on dating websites and he would find women that usually had good financial backing. he always told people he was a doctor. >> reporter: he seemed like an ideal catch, i suppose. >> yes. >> reporter: for a lot of these women. >> he was a true conman. he'd take their money and when they would find out about him, john would threaten 'em, he would terrorize 'em. >> reporter: how bad was he? >> john was the most dangerous, treacherous, manipulative, deceitful, criminal that i'd investigated in 40 years of law enforcement.
>> reporter: once terra learned about john's past, she was consumed with worry. >> i was very distraught at the time. >> reporter: because this dangerous man was now married to a very successful business woman who happened to be terra's mother. >> he couldn't get enough of me. >> reporter: that's a good feeling. >> it is. >> reporter: the trickery of love. >> yes. >> reporter: trickery. but something far worse than that was coming soon. coming up -- one of debra's daughters is about to make an ominous discovery. >> she was in a panic. she said, "i saw john. and i said, "where?" she goes, "outside in a car." >> are this terrified family's worst fears about to come true? when "dateline" continues. when "dateline" continues. feel the clarity of non-drowsy claritin. and 24 hour relief from symptoms caused by over 200 indoor and outdoor allergens. like those from buddy.
>> reporter: debra newell had fallen in love with a conman. and when her daughters spoke with the detective who'd been investigating john meehan for years -- >> i says, "this guy is bad news. you need to get your mother away from him." >> reporter: debra had bought a house near las vegas where john could live away from her family, she split her time between there and orange county, but the daughters went into rescue mode.
one thing they found especially alarming was yet another police report about dirty john. this one from just two years earlier and much closer to home. the police in laguna beach had arrested john meehan for stalking a woman, and they discovered he'd rented an office space in which they found zip ties, cyanide and two loaded guns. what did all that say to you? >> he might be a killer. and she has to get out of this. >> reporter: has to? >> has to. >> reporter: john had an explanation of course, even for that cyanide. >> he says he has multiple sclerosis, and that he kept the capsules around in case he needed to kill himself if it got too painful for him. >> reporter: this time, however john's story didn't ring true, not even to debra. >> he still continued to treat me incredibly well. but he tried to isolate me from everyone. >> reporter: especially your family. >> especially my family. >> reporter: and now, chastened and afraid, she reconciled with
her daughters and read everything they had uncovered about john meehan's past. i assume by this time you didn't feel in love with him anymore? >> no. >> reporter: what did you feel? >> confusion. i thought, "how could this man fake it to this degree? did he love me or was this all a game?" and i realized i was his newest victim. >> reporter: in april 2016, 16 months after marrying john meehan, she fled from the home they shared in vegas back to orange county, and from a safe distance, she filed for an annulment. and soon discovered just as tonia bales had discovered years before that john could turn on a dime. he started by trying to ruin her reputation. sent weird, inappropriate emails to her colleagues, her clients. did he send photographs of you to anybody? >> he sent nude photos, yeah. >> reporter: that's a nightmare for any woman to be in. >> oh yeah. there were so many things that he did, but one of them, he burnt my car.
he took it, stole it, and then set it on fire. >> reporter: did he threaten you physically? >> yes, but not in a direct way. he would say, "boo, i know where you are. it's not gonna be for long." >> tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth. okay? because that's what it's gonna come down to. >> i went into hiding. i bought a dark wig. changed my clothes. got a rental car. stayed in different hotels. i went everywhere that he wouldn't suspect. >> reporter: how long did that go on? >> six months. >> reporter: wow. >> yeah. >> reporter: now, stories john had told her before she left played over and over in debra's worried mind. disturbing stories. he'd told similar ones to tonia years before. stories about the mafia. >> if they wanna get back at you, say you took money from them or something. they don't kill you. they kill someone you love.
because then you live in pain the rest of your life knowing that your actions caused the death of a loved one and now you don't have them. i learned that from him. >> reporter: and the man debra once loved she now feared. that had to be a very, very strange feeling. >> very much, yes. scared for my life. >> reporter: and not just her own life. >> i was afraid he'd kill my mom. i was also afraid he would kill me or my sister or someone. >> reporter: after all, they'd ruined all his plans. in the summer of 2016, debra began staying, in secret, with her other daughter. hoping she was safe there. and then it was the night of august 19th. >> she came home and she was in a panic. she said, "i saw john. i saw john." and i said, "where?" she goes, outside in a car." >> reporter: watching them? he was supposed to be in las vegas. why was he back in orange county? she didn't have to wait long to
find out. >> someone's been stabbed. >> someone's been stabbed? coming up -- the evil that had been gathering for almost two years explodes in broad daylight. >> he's planned this out. this was a revenge killing. >> and the shattering end that would stun even the cops. when "dateline" continues. i wanted more from my copd medicine, that's why i've got the power of 1,2,3 medicines with trelegy.
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august 20th, 2016. 5:00 p.m. a 14-year-old named skylar was returning home from her junior lifeguard training when she heard a woman screaming. out of the parking lot of her newport beach apartment building. >> i've never heard anybody else scream like that before. >> reporter: a lot of people would dive under the covers and say, i hope that stops. >> once i found out what was going on i knew what i had to do. >> reporter: she raced to the parking lot. her mother called 911.
>> screaming and saw a man waving his hand up and down. >> officers are on the way with sirens. did she say if blood was drawn? >> i don't know. somebody said she was bleeding. >> reporter: schuyler got to the parking lot and saw a man and woman she didn't know. >> as i was running, i could see everything that was going on. i saw him actually stab her. >> reporter: that woman being stabbed was terra, who, with her dog cash, had just stepped out of her car to find someone waiting. dirty john. >> he said, "do you remember me?" he looked me right in the eyes. >> reporter: there was no pause, no time to think. terra, sitting here talking about it, was still struggling with what happened. still visibly keeping an emotional distance, as if it happened to somebody else. >> he was trying to push me into the car. he actually had the trunk wide open. >> reporter: trunk. so he wanted you in the trunk of his car? >> yes.
>> reporter: john was 6'2." a foot taller than terra. as he pushed her, he began hitting her with a bag. something hard in it. >> it just felt like i was getting punched over and over again. >> reporter: but it wasn't that. there was a knife in the bag. cutting her. slicing into her. >> and i put my arm up with my purse above my heart. and i tried to get away from him. i was screaming. he put his hand over my mouth. and i bit as hard as i could. >> reporter: cash the dog barked furiously. bit into john's ankle. >> i got thrown down onto the ground somehow. and i was just pedal kicking him trying to block the knife when he's stabbing me. and i kicked the knife out of his hand, and it landed on my righthand side. >> reporter: and then, full of adrenaline, she did something astonishing. >> i picked up the knife and i
started just wailing on him and stabbing him. and i pushed him down. i stabbed him at the top of his head and then, the last time was in the eyeball. >> reporter: did you aim for that? >> i did. that's the zombie kill. >> reporter: that show, "the walking dead." her education for fighting evil. what did you understand from watching that show about how you deal with zombies? >> you have to kill them in the head. like, you have to kill their brain. >> reporter: the police arrived. their dashcam video picked up skylar, the junior lifeguard, leading a very shaken terra to the curb. >> right down here to the bottom okay? >> reporter: where, still terrified, she called her mother. >> i think i might have killed him. i'm sorry. [ crying ] i'm sorry. i knew this was going to happen. did i not tell you he was going
to try to hurt us? >> she said, "mom, i just killed your husband. i'm so sorry." and i'm thinking, "what?" >> reporter: debra raced over there. >> you could see police cars blocking it off, fire engines. it was crazy. >> reporter: they wouldn't let you in? >> they said it was a crime scene. >> reporter: john meehan never regained consciousness. and four days later, dirty john was dead. right after the attack, newport beach detective rick henry found john's killer, terra, at the hospital. her dog still guarding her. >> and she told me the whole story. >> the whole story's a pretty complicated mess? >> yes. >> reporter: as doctors treated terra's wounds, detective henry began investigating. the whole family waited and worried. >> reporter: so what were you afraid of? >> well, i didn't know if they would for sure know that it was him attacking her, and it was self-defense. >> reporter: so you were afraid that they might charge her with
something? >> yes. >> reporter: there's a process the law must follow. careful consideration. august became september, october, november. debra didn't know it, but the detective had discovered something in the trunk of john's car. >> we found a backpack with numerous other knives inside. we found zip ties. we found duct tape. we found his passport. >> it took some organization. it took thinking. he's planned this out. this was a revenge killing. >> reporter: orange county deputy district attorney matt murphy believed the evidence spoke for itself. >> there is an image of this young woman in the hospital with her dog sitting on her bed. talk about a picture saying 1,000 words. it screams out that this is an innocent woman who came very close to being murdered by a really bad guy and fought bravely and survived. >> reporter: the prosecutor said it was an easy decision. this was self-defense. case closed.
did a feeling come with that? >> a sense of relief that it's, like, finally over. >> reporter: john meehan's ex-wife tonia bales was working when she got the news. do you remember that moment? >> oh, yeah. it made me tremble. i was in the middle of a case, and it just -- it popped up on the screen as a notification. "john was killed." by the time i took the patient outta the room, i was in tears. yeah. i wasn't in tears 'cause he died. i was in tears 'cause i had to tell his children. and that made me very sad to have to tell them. it was awful. >> reporter: her daughters, 16 and 21 at the time, said they regretted not being able to show him how well they turned out in spite of him. and now? debra still struggles with guilt. >> i would have never, ever in my entire life put my kids at fear -- or put them in danger. that was the last thing on my mind, is that he would be going
after one of my kids. >> reporter: you feel lucky in a way? >> oh, i feel very lucky. i believe terra saved many lives. saved my life. saved many other victims. >> reporter: terra was diagnosed with ptsd. she still has some healing to do, but she returned with us to that parking lot. i don't wanna poke and prod too much, but what happens inside your stomach when you're here? >> i just get a lot of anxiety. i just have flashbacks of me running down the ramp and just, like, going to the cement. >> reporter: she gamely showed us the spot where she looked death in the eye. and struck back. this wasn't an easy thing to do. >> i'm just taking it all in right now. >> reporter: uh-huh. i think you're a tough cookie. right? >> yeah, that's what a lot of people say. [ laughter ] i guess so. [ laughter ] >> reporter: and dirty john meehan is an ever more distant memory now.
his trail of victims safe from his terror. thanks to a young woman and a little dog who fought for her life -- and won. that's all for now. thanks for joining us. >> that's all for this edition of dateline. i'm natalie morales. thanks for watching. i'm craig melvin. >> andcr i'm natalie morales. >> and this is dateline. >> i know my sister would have fought. we used to tell each other that if somebody ever tried to hurt us, that we would do everything we can to leave something behind so the other one can figure it out. i believe she was murdered. >> this is a very bizarre death. >> it was baffling from the start. a young woman dead at her millionaire boyfriend's mansion.
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